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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Kathy Pearson, of Salt Lake City, helps lay out 150,000 links of a paper chain at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 1, 2013. The links in the chain represent low-income Utahns who currently are unable to pay for basic health care. A rally was held on the steps of the Capitol to urge Gov. Gary Herbert to expand Medicaid.

SALT LAKE CITY — A car accident that left Stacy Davis-Stanford bound to a wheelchair also triggered a degenerative illness that is chipping away at her body.

But it's the medical bills piling up that are getting her down.

"I figure I'll pay my bills eventually, but I don't have the resources to worry about it now," the 27-year-old Utah student said Friday at a rally at the state Capitol to encourage Gov. Gary Herbert to expand Medicaid in Utah.

Davis-Stanford is currently uninsured, has nearly $200,000 in unpaid bills, and is one of about 150,000 Utahns who would be eligible for Medicaid if the system is expanded to include a larger population.

"It is very important that we cover these people," said Linda Hilton, director of the Coalition of Religious Communities, which organized the rally. "They deserve it. They work hard. These are not lazy people who are depending on the system. These are people who need good health to keep working, being taxpayers and providing to society."

Several dozen people worked for weeks to connect paper chains to represent uninsured Utahns "who are chained to a life of poor health, perhaps even death," Hilton said. Those chains, she said, were deposited on the floor of Herbert's office Friday, giving him a chance to visualize what expansion could mean to so many.

"I think we've made our point," Hilton said. "I hope our message resonates with the governor."

As a feature of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, states have the option to expand federally subsidized Medicaid programs to include more individuals who will be required to have proof of medical insurance by January of next year.

The federal government has offered to pay 100 percent of the cost of the expansion in the first years of implementation. Reimbursement would drop to 90 percent by about 10 years, and states would be required to make up the remainder of the costs to insure more of their residents.

Herbert has not made a decision on whether Utah will expand Medicaid, but has said the issue may not be decided until after the Legislature adjourns in two weeks. He faces no deadline on the matter, but the sooner he decides, the less federal money the state sidesteps.

The Rev. Elizabeth Hunter of the Cathedral Church of St. Mark, quoting the Hebrew Bible, also pleaded with those who would listen Friday to "open your hearts and hands to help the poor and needy." She said most of the people who can be helped with the expansion are low-income wage-earners who are doing their best to contribute to society.

"Many of the poor who come to the food pantry at St. Mark's are working," Hunter said. "They're not working a job; they are working two jobs or three jobs. They do not have coverage, and if their employer provides coverage, they cannot afford it so they go without."

Health insurance for this population, she said, would provide an opportunity for preventive care and to address medical conditions before they become more costly to treat, which can fall on the backs of taxpayers.

"It would be devastating with the illnesses we've had to not have insurance," said Kathy Pearson, who is insured but participated at the rally to support those without medical coverage.

Before her mother passed away recently, Pearson said she endured a costly trip to the emergency room for some broken ribs that ultimately couldn't be treated. Thankfully, she said, the $4,000 bill was picked up by her mother's insurance company.

"We would be destitute without it, just like so many are," Pearson, 67, said.

Davis-Stanford, however, works diligently to avoid being penniless. Her trauma-induced condition and inability to perform at her former job led to unemployment and lost benefits. It has left her at the mercy of emergency room doctors, whom she believes often don't provide the best care due to her inability to pay.

"I am stuck in a deadly downward spiral, which is costing taxpayers thousands, which could all be solved by your decision to accept the Medicaid expansion," she wrote in a letter to Utah lawmakers.

"This decision could save my life," Davis-Stanford said. "But the issue is bigger than me. The health of our citizens is something that affects every single one of us."

She has applied for cost assistance programs but has to limit her income, sometimes as low as $500 a month, to qualify. To make ends meet, she and her husband sell art and jewelry from their Salt Lake City home.

Davis-Stanford is planning to go back to school soon, to finish a degree in social work and political science, and eventually achieve a master's degree and be able to pay down some of the debts she's incurred in the two years since her accident.

And she hopes for a better day, "when things will all work out."

"I'm optimistic. I have to be," Davis-Stanford said.

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards